When I was 6, after school one day I went to spend a few hours with a friend of my mom. She had some older kids and they had an Atari with several games. I spent hours glued to the TV and clumsily trying to shoot down a (very slowly) invading army of aliens. Later that same year, I went to stay with another of her friends, also with older children while she was out on a date. This time, her teenage son had a home computer. I watched the television screen as he showed me how his computer could “read my biorythm” and run other elementary text programs and play some games. It was literally like magic. My biggest dream was to get one of my own.
One year later we moved into a new apartment and for Christmas I got a TI-99/4A. It used an RF modulator to connect to our television via the antenna screws. It worked at 3 MHz and had 256 bytes of “scratchpad” memory and 16k of graphics RAM. It used ROM cartridges to load educational programs and games and had the ability to use a standard audio tape as an external tape drive. It ran “TI Extended Basic” and had a speech synthesizer. My family spent many nights playing Scott Adam’s “Pirate Adventure” – a text adventure game which used a simple cursor which accepted “NOUN VERB” input describing what to do “TAKE MAP” or “WALK NORTH”. Eventually we got stuck on an island and couldn’t figure out what to do next. I also spent many, many hours reading my book about Basic and typing in programs which I would save to cassette.
One day, I thought “I wonder what that sounds like” and played it in a tape recorder. It was hideous, but I was kind of enthralled by the idea that those sounds mean something: It’s like a secret code. I spent a long time listening to it, trying to figure it out. Needless to say, I didn’t.
But I also listened to my save game from pirate adventure and was surprised to hear that it sounded very similar. I wrote various programs to do things “save a whole bunch of a’s and then a whole bunch of b’s” to listen to see whether I could hear the difference. I experimented trying to load recordings of my own voice as programs. It was fascinating. One day, with some experimentation I attempted to load some programs *as* save game data for Pirate Adventure and gasped in surprize to find that I was in a place I’d never been and my inventory now included all sorts of bizarre things – game elements that I’d imagine you’re not really supposed to carry. I literally ran around the house skipping and jumping.
Over the next couple of years I spent a lot of time in front of the computer when I wasn’t outside riding my bike or playing baseball. All sorts of things changed. People I knew got cable and VHS players that let you watch movies on your own television. Our new home was near the edge of the woods and there were turtles everywhere. The neighborhood kids kept about 25 of them in a friend’s yard and had a “club”. I wrote a simple program to keep track of them (several of them, as it turns out, because we could never get it to save properly). Choose your own adventure books were starting to be a thing and some of them came with elements that you could program – they never worked out of the box with my TI Extended Basic, but often I could figure out how to adapt them. I tried to write some simple ASCII-based games (they were never very good). Each effort was a tremendous amount of tedium, confusion and pain followed by extreme elation when you ran something and it finally worked.
Then, one day, I watched the movie War Games and saw computers doing things I’d never dreamed of. I realized that my TI was a mere toy, but the things it taught me were excellent. I began getting giant computer magazines and dreaming of someday connecting to another computer. I would take every “computer” class available to me in middle school and high school, but they were all jokes. One of them was a glorified typing course (in fact, there was a typing class still that used the same room and was taught by the same person).
At 14 we were back in Pennsylvania and my step father had started a construction business. I went to work for him in the summer, sometimes on weekends or minor holidays. I did chores around the house and saved. With the help of my parents I got an IBM PC compatible machine built (with an amber monitor) when I was 15, but still no modem. No big loss because I didn’t have a phone line anywhere near my room and we couldn’t afford one.
When I was 15, my homeroom was the computer lab and off in a forgotten corner, used only by faculty, was a main frame dumb terminal with an accordion stack of perforated printer paper behind it. I got on it on several occasions and felt like I had super-powers. I got my modem when I was 16 and got on CompuServe.
Later that year, I started drawing and painting and, through a fortuitous series of events, got an opportunity to move to Vermont to apprentice for a famous illustrator. It was somewhat depressing how little of my time involved art and how much involved business: Looking up records, finding prints and negatives, preparing things for mailing, typing contracts and so on. I noticed that there was a brand new PC sitting in the corner collecting dust so one day I said “I can fix this for you” and set off to write him a system to do all of the garbage that neither of us really wanted to do. I took my earnings and bought my own computer (complete with modem) and in a few months most of the monotony was gone – he was automated and efficient and I was on the Web. “You should be on the Web” I told him and before you knew it, he was. One year in he took me to lunch and said “I don’t know how to tell you this, but – I don’t see how I can justify employing you anymore.” But a friend of his hired me and that was it, we were off.
A year later I was apprenticing for a legitimate programming company and six months after that I was an employee, helping them launch their Web and Multimedia division – back in school, with a new major and on their dime. The Web was a game changer for me, it was fascinating to consider how to employ its powers as a universal/ubiquitous platform in increasingly new and challengingly large-scale endeavors.
My love of all things Web and the challenges it provides me has never wavered since. These days, my one of main interests is related to how to make sure that the Web remains an interesting and competitive force for generations – it’s a problem of massive technical and social scale and involves lots of fun challenges. I expect it’ll keep me busy for a while.